Saudi Arabia

One Cheer for Sharia

Saudi women are using Islamic law to fight for their rights


Saudi women have ramped up their struggle to end their country's ban on female drivers recently. This battle is decades old, but what's surprising is that these women are increasingly defending their right to drive not by referring to any Western conception of liberty or equality. Rather, they are arguing that allowing women behind the wheel is more consistent with sharia — the same Islamic law that instructs men that women are their property, just like "gold, silver, branded beautiful horses, cattle and well-tilled land." 

No less than three female members of the shura, the king's advisory council, an all-male body until recently, have argued that the ban is not ordained by sharia but the country's tribal Bedouin traditions that are at odds with the true teachings of the Quran. By forcing women to depend on hired male drivers (most of whom are foreigners) the ban itself violates sharia's strictures proscribing women from being alone in the company of unrelated men. And while this seems contradictory, arguing from the texts of a religion whose oppressive yoke they're seeking to cast off is an effective strategy that requires no needless martyring to one's cause.

Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women from driving. It also requires women to obtain permission from their male "guardians" to conduct any official business — buy property, get married, have elective surgery or travel. The Saudi government hasn't quite figured out how to deliver mail to homes, yet last year it managed to successfully implement a state-of-the-art electronic tracking system that texts husbands if their wives leave the country without them. "No matter how long you live, you remain a minor in the eyes of the government," one woman lamented.

Instead of taking such indignities head-on, Saudi activists have chosen a cautious path. The organizers of the recent campaign even advised women to scrupulously observe clerical diktats and wear a hijab and have a male relative in tow when they went cruising. This might seem counterproductive to Western observers, suggesting that the driving ban is bad not because it restricts women's movements, but because it offends their modesty. It is an affront not to principles of justice and equality, but patriarchy.

Trading away the right to control one's sexual destiny for the right to drive a motor vehicle hardly seems a bargain worth making.

But arguments that are regressive in one context are progressive in another. There are universal rights, but not a universally valid playbook for achieving them. Western freedoms too were won by precisely such piecemeal, ad hoc arguments that appealed to prevailing prejudices and special interests.

John Locke, the English 17th Century political theorist credited with launching the Enlightenment, argued for the separation of church and state — the centerpiece of liberal democracy — not by a frontal assault on Christianity. Rather, he used the New Testament's own central teaching — that faith when forced brings no salvation — to stop the state from imposing one official religion. He persuaded the rulers to get out of the business of religion not for the sake of a more secular society but a more authentically Christian one.

Locke couldn't have attempted a more radical confrontation with religious orthodoxy in pre-modern Europe any more than Saudi women could with their Islamic theocrats today. Doing so would have meant certain death for him and a likely public whipping for Saudi firebrands. More crucially, it would have justified a draconian crackdown, quashing their movements in infancy. By contrast, advocating reforms based on a system's own terms often makes it easier to win over moderates and build a critical mass of supporters. Such tactics also allow the internal contradictions in oppressive systems to build overtime, generating change peacefully without the social disruptions produced by revolutionary movements launched in the name of abstract principles of justice and rights.

Before launching the campaign to lift the driving ban, for example, Saudi women had persuaded the king that the "social rights" granted to them by Islam means that they should be able to vote and run for office. But this means that when these rights go into effect in 2015, elected women will be able to control the reins of power but not a steering wheel to drive to the state capitol. This will make the ban not just unfair but absurd. When it inevitably dies, it'll snowball into other reforms, weakening patriarchy from the inside.

In the past, Saudi Arabia's morality police has gotten away with harassing and humiliating women because it has positioned itself as the guardian of country's Islamic values. The new sharia-based argument against the driving ban wrests this moral high ground and hoists the guardians on their own petard. That's why it is more likely to succeed than invocation of Western notions of rights and justice.

A version of this column originally appeared in TIME Ideas

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  1. I just hate to see wording such as ‘driving rights’; it sounds as if we need a ‘right’ for each activity.
    More correctly, those women are working for their freedom, and included in that is the ability to transport themselves as they damn well please.

    1. The right to travel could be considered a solid stand-alone right. That particular right is why I bitch slap anyone that says driving is a privilege.

      1. Free Society|11.1.13 @ 5:46PM|#
        “The right to travel could be considered a solid stand-alone right.”

        I guess it could, but why? Do I need a “right” to buy a hot dog at the ball-park?

  2. How about the argument that if they learn to drive they can be better suicide bombers?

    1. Learning to drive is only a few steps away from learning to fly!

  3. I wasn’t aware that a woman behind a wheel could so easily derail the divinely inspired “religion of peace”.

    1. Amazing how fragile the supposedly ‘all-powerful’ sky daddy is.

      1. I guess it’s the equivalent of eating meat on Fridays. Even a god doesn’t see all the loopholes.

  4. In America we are informed every time we step into the DMV or are pulled over by the police that driving is not a right, it is a privilege.

  5. Shikha Dalmia gets this quite right.

    When individuals are free, societies organize themselves in optimal ways, but in societies that aren’t free, they need to make those transitions somehow, and the best way to do that is by using the best tools available.

    When you’re arguing with someone who takes Christianity seriously, it would be foolish not to exploit their Christianity in the name of libertarianism. Statements of God’s kingdom government being a heavenly government, and that “The kingdom of God is within you” abound in the New Testament. As far as I’m concerned, there is no more concise and complete statement of libertarianism than, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”.

    Some gay people who have spent the last couple of decades fighting Christians for the right to equal treatment before the law may take issue with that characterization of Christianity, but I’d like to point out that just because so many of them neglected to use Christianity against their Christian opponents, that hardly means Christian arguments against discrimination are ineffective. And considering how long it took for them to achieve their goals, I’d hardly hold up denigrating Christianity itself as an effective strategy.

    1. I couldn’t agree more – I’ve always found the most effective line with sincere believers is not to tell them that their religion is stupid, since that just makes them stop listening to you.

      Better to point out that the whole point of the New Testament is that God and God alone has the right to judge and punish other people for their sins, and human governments abrogate this power from God in a manner that the New Testament portrays as unambiguously evil.

      Libertarianism is more fundamentally compatible with Christianity than any other political philosophy.

      1. The Christian God is even more libertarian than I am.

        I think murderers should be punished by the government in the here and now.

        The Christian God doesn’t necessarily punish them until the end of time.

        1. Under most flavors of Christianity, God punishes people who don’t punish murderers, unless the non-punishers repent.

          1. I frankly question that.

            I don’t know where you’re getting that from, but when I consider the verbiage in the New Testament, I don’t come away with anything like that at all.

            Does the phrase “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” mean anything to you?

            Or how ’bout?

            “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person”

            Matthew 6:38-39


      2. I’ve always found the most effective line with sincere believers is not to tell them that their religion is stupid, since that just makes them stop listening to you.

        But how else is one supposed to assert one’s intellectual superiority?

        1. I don’t know if you’re being factious, but assuming you’re not–if you can’t make your point without insulting someone’s religion, then I question whether you’re intellectually superior.

  6. Some of the biggest social changes we’ve seen in American history came about because devout Christians started taking their Christianity extremely seriously. Martin Luther King was a preacher. The abolitionists came out of the Second and Third Great Awakenings. Those changes came about because people started appealing to Christians with Christianity.

    I don’t see why Muslims wouldn’t be persuaded, similarly, by Islam. We’ve come to think of Islam the way gay rights activists portray Christians, but it just isn’t so. Certainly, no society is immune to the benefits of freedom. There are optimal ways for societies to organize themselves, and the more free Muslim societies are, the better off they’ll be, too. If it takes using Islam to get there, then that’s what they should do.

    1. Ken’s on the right track.

      I always liked to hit my statist-Xtian friends w/ Samuel 8:

      10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.
      11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.
      12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.
      13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
      14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.
      15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.
      16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.
      17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

      Idiots didn’t listen, got a king, good and hard.

      Also good: “Peter, put up your sword.”

      I like to tell my Xtian friends: Jesus may have told us to render unto Caesar, but he never told us to BE Caesar.

      Kevin R

      Non=believer [or, devil quoting scripture :)]

  7. For years, now, pillocks from both ends of the political spectrum have wanted to know why we didn’t attack Saudi Arabia after 9/11, and this is part of the answer. If we had attacked them, we would have won in a matter of days, and then we would have to run the place. Even without taking the Hadj into account, that is a fate I wouldn’t wish on a dong.

  8. I also like Flash, but I am not a good designer to design a Flash, except I have software by witch a Flash is automatically produced and no extra to work.

  9. Huh, this is interesting, but I don’t know how I feel about it. lasik eye surgery

  10. Thank you very much

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